Origins of Art Nouveau

One could argue as to which was the last movement of the Nineteenth-century or the first movement of the Twentieth-century, but Art Nouveau fits into the end and the beginning, dating from 1895 to 1905.  But these dates are ambiguous. Art Nouveau was a continuation of the older arts and crafts movement of the British designer, William Morris.   Seemingly ended by the rectilinear design ethic of Cubism, Art Nouveau reemerged after the Great War as Art Deco, which then morphed into the Bauhaus. Art Nouveau was based upon a dream born of the horrified reaction of William Morris to the shabby manufactured goods, festooned in bad taste and marred by poor craft that he saw at the Great Exposition of 1851 in London. The brainchild of Prince Albert, an art lover, the Exposition featured the unlikely stars, new machines such as the McCormick Reaper, displayed for public visual consumption in an iron and glass cathedral of industry.   The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was a true marvel of modern construction and innovative design.  But William Morris left the exhibition, determined to revive the medieval tradition of craft as art.

It is the dream of Morris—that craft might be art and that art might be well crafted—that extended over a century, from the Arts and Crafts movement, to the Aesthetic Movement in England to the Art Nouveau in France to the Bauhaus designs in Germany and America after World War II. Art Nouveau, like its predecessors and successors was an international movement, called “Jungenstil” in Germany and the “Liberty Style” in England, for example, and encompassed painting, sculpture, jewelry making, glass art, metal art, architecture, fabric art, furniture, wallpapers, and printmaking and so on. Art Nouveau was based upon the idea of the “Total Work of Art,” the gesamtkunstwerk, which engulfed all of the spectator’s senses. Art Nouveau was a total immersion of life in style.  All of existence was to be aestheticized.

Although often associated only with the decorative arts, Art Nouveau was part of a more complex phenomenon that had been unfolding in Europe for a long time.  First, the Salon system and the academic system tended to create a hierarchy among the arts, with the “minor arts” placed well below the “beaux-arts.” Art Nouveau sought to restore the importance of the decorative arts.  Second, Art Nouveau is often connected to Symbolism, with certain artists begin claimed by both movements.  An artist, such as Paul Gauguin, whose work was frankly decorative, was important to both philosophies.  Third, Symbolism was a late extension of Romanticism, a kind of extreme eccentricity, seen in Gustave Moreau and carried on by the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi (Casa Mila, 1905 – 10), who was connected to Art Nouveau.  Fourth, looking forward, Art Nouveau was an important precedent for the European movement of Expressionism. After decades of the dominance of realism, either as movement, “Realism;” or a style, “realistic,” the avant-garde artists began to consider alternatives to observed empirical reality.  Symbolism, a late nineteenth century reaction to realism and positivism, and Art Nouveau, an early Twentieth Century extension of this rejection of realism were part of a larger philosophical quarrel between materialism and idealism.

Art Nouveau and Symbolism

The historical context of Art Nouveau is that of a mood of decline and decadence, which developed into a neo-mystical and irrational direction opposed to positivism and naturalism.  The aim of Art Nouveau artists was not to depict or describe nature but to evoke or convey sensual impressions very much like the attempts of French poets, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud to escape the restrictions of the real and visible world.  By shifting the task of the artist from that of an observer, even a voyeur, the new artists at the fin-de-siècle, took up the question of how do we see and how do we know the world.  This “world” is not confined to that which can be apprehended by the senses.  The “world” of any human being is also a mental world, personal and subjective and emotional. If Impressionism asks the question how do we see, by presenting us with a variety of versions of seeing and looking, Symbolism gives us a different dialogue, a mental one.  Seeing is what we think it is.  Seeing is less important than what we see makes us feel.  Life is in the mind, not just in the eyes.  Symbolism explored the human mind, the human subject, as exhaustively as Impressionism explored the human world, the inhuman objects.

The idea that nature was or could be more than simply a pretty scene was taken up by the artists, which clustered around Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven.  Gauguin’s associate, Émile Bernard, called the style they developed Cloisionisme, a title which conveys the idea of the intent of the artists quite well.  Simply, the term described the heavy or prominent black outlines used by the artists. But the term itself comes from jewelry making and is a way of drawing with thin strips of metal.  These borders form boundaries around areas of intense colors made of precious stones.  In taking a term from the crafts, the artists were implying, more complexly, that the use of line was freed from its traditional task of description and was given over to the task of formal expression and to the constructive demands of design.  Line was free from its previous role as describer and began to take on a life of its own.

Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, 1888 is an excellent example of Symbolism, of Post-Impressionism and of an Art Nouveau precursor—in other words, of an artistic stance or impulse, which was anti-realistic. Based upon the influence of the “arbitrary” composition of Japanese prints, the design is strong, surmounting any traditional Western concepts of composition; color is vivid, arbitrary and non-naturalistic, used for emotional effect; line is dark, curvilinear and prominent.  The subject is mystical and magical, hardly concerned with the realist-based daily life of the leisured middle class.  The subjects of Gauguin’s Pont-Aven period are timeless and about timeless experiences that are spiritual and unspeakable and inexpressible—except by an artist, such as Gauguin.  But is the subject—Breton peasants having a religious experience—modern?  Probably not.  Is the idea that spiritual values were as important as material value a modern one?  Not really.  So what is the rupture here?  The style of Paul Gauguin—arbitrary colors and strong outlines of abstracted and simplified shapes—moved away from the objectivity of Impressionism.

Art as Craft, Craft as Art

By the end of the century, Gauguin can be seen to be pointing towards a “liberation” of the elements of art, such as line and color, from the “confines” of subject matter and from the “task” of description.  On the other hand, Gauguin’s style was quite in tune with his subject matter, which transcended itself, expressing something more than a Breton experience. His “Vision after the Sermon” is also a human experience. It would be a mistake to interpret all fin-de-siècle art as being art-for-art’s-sake, but Gauguin and the Symbolist artist made strong arguments for artistic freedom.  But here is where Symbolism and Art Nouveau part company.  According to the Kantian doctrine of art-for-art’s sake, art’s purpose is its purposelessness. Too much of Art Nouveau was applied art.  In terms of purpose, Art Nouveau sought to provide purposeful objects the status of “art” by infusing them with style, a style, which had, in and of itself, no useful purpose and existed merely for the sake of Beauty.

The concept of “Beauty” had greatly changed over the century.  Frederic Schiller has followed Kant’s footsteps in aesthetics and understood beauty to stem from the Greco-Roman standards. But, even early in the century, Schiller sensed the threat to these timeless canons of beauty: modern life itself.  With the Industrial Revolution, beauty was replaced by a certain utility of manufacture, causing a decline of Taste. Taste, as defined by its role in art, disappeared and was replaced by a manufactured look to mass produced objects, just as style was replaced by necessity of fabrication.  The horror of machine wrought objects was fully on view in the Crystal Palace exhibitions of 1851.  While most marveled at Joseph Paxton’s new architecture of glass and iron, Oxford student, William Morris, was horrified and ten years later started Morris and Company in 1861 with the intent to revive the Medieval traditions of art as craft and craft as art.

Morris insisted that everything beautiful should also be useful and vice versa and established the “Morris look” that is popular even today.  The elegant and naturalistic wallpaper patterns, the palely colored rooms decorated with restraint, and the pared down furniture established a standard that would lead to Twentieth Century design.  The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international movement, extending even to America, and, in England, evolved into the Aesthetic Movement in which beauty was extended from the home to high art in England, especially in the art of James Whistler who was an exponent of art for art’s sake.  For the French, Art Nouveau came as something of a surprise; but for the English, the movement was an extension of earlier impulses—that of extending beauty to life and to all its objects and artifacts. Art Nouveau, which seemed to be merely decorative had a higher purpose.  In another reaction against the crass materialism and the “naïve” naturalism of the Impressionists, the artists of the Art Nouveau movement sought to renew the decorative arts through a union of the fine and applied artists.

Characteristics of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is more than a style, it is also an intent: to renew art and to develop a new art.  Art Nouveau is just what its name states, a “new art.”  Art Nouveau was an international style, having a variety of names, depending upon which country one is in.  Its permanent name was derived from the Paris shop of Samuel (Siegfried) Bing, La Maison de l’Art nouveau, founded in 1895 (The N is not capitalized in French). Often the end of Art Nouveau is marked at the year, 1905, the year of Bing’s death.  Art Nouveau in France as a style can be identified with the characteristic whiplash line and with asymmetrical compositions. In other nations, the line of Art Nouveau would be straight, as with the work of Charles Henry Mackintosh.  Line and design take over and subject matter is ruled and ordered by the demands of the powerful line.  Line is closely allied to ornament and decoration.  There is a definite philosophy connected to the use of ornament, and this philosophy varied according to who was speaking.

Art Nouveau designers and painters understood line as a determining force.  Designs based upon nature were common and line was thus always in motion, growing like a natural being, asymmetrical and undulating, whip like, energy-laden, with movement, engulfing and transforming the object.  As with Gauguin, line pursues a separate life of its own and mass is molded in obedience to linear rhythm.  Ornamentation seems alive and restless but balanced and in a state of equilibrium, indicating the dynamism of nature, where the structure of form would be fused with organic unity.  But there were dissenting opinions on the subject of line.

Henry van de Velde of Belgium was scornful of anything curvilinear or naturalistic.  He preferred the geometric abstraction of the structure of ornament.  Anything else was mere surface decadence.  For van de Velde, structure was everything and he disliked the floral themes of Émile Galle’s glass works.  René Lalique’s jewelry in its opulent naturalism was grotesque to van de Velde. Émile Galle, who founded the famous communal school at Nancy, preferred the naturalistic motifs and used them without the exaggeration that one sees in the line of British illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. English architect and designer, Charles Voysey, seemed to take a middle ground between stern structural approached and fantastic curvilinear extravaganzas and all embracing nature.  He preferred a more analytical and selective approach to nature, using it as a stepping-stone to stylization.

Voysey, like many of his Art nouveau counterparts, turned his hand to many arts.  He designed textiles and furniture and was a very important architect of domestic houses.  The English Art Nouveau designers resisted French extravagances, such as can be seen in Hector Guimard’s Métro stations.  Charles Henry Mackintosh designed his Glasgow School of Art with a bit more restraint, preferring rigid straight lines and pale colors.   Van de Velde also designed furniture and houses, and the American Louis Comfort Tiffany, famed for his glass creations, also designed furniture.  Another leading furniture designer was the Frenchman, Louis Marjorelle, whose plastic designs made wood do things that wood never dreamed of doing.  The idea is that Art Nouveau artists attempted to create a total environment with all the parts coordinating into an ensemble instead of just being pieces standing separately in a room.

Art Nouveau and Architectural Theory

The Art Nouveau artists were also attempting to escape from Beaux-Arts architecture and from Victorian bad taste.  The escape from Beaux-Arts was an escape from dead traditions and from imperial opulence and from associations with the past.  The escape from Victorian bad taste had to do with improving ornament and decoration.  Artists of a slightly later generation, such as the architect, Adolph Loos of Vienna, would take a sterner and more uncompromising approach.  Ornament was, for Loos, a “crime.”  Art Nouveau was the decadent opposite of the new uncompromising Modernism developing in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Art Nouveau was an art of beauty and luxury, divorced from the Industrial Revolution and the processes of mass manufacture.  The so called “new art” was nostalgic and did not express the new century.  One can ask if Art Nouveau was truly a new art for a new century or the last rear guard action preserving the past.  Ultimately, the viewpoint of Loos would win out and the white reductiveness of Modernist architecture would render the architecture of Art Nouveau to isolated fancies of architects of folly, such as Gaudi’s amazing organic cathedral, Sagrada Familia (1882 – 1926) in Barcelona.

The attempts of the Art Nouveau artists to educate and improved taste was doomed.  Like the Arts and Crafts movement before Art nouveau, many of the artists found that the time for handcrafted goods was passed.  These one-of-a-kind objects became luxury goods for sophisticated tastes and fat pocketbooks.  Art Nouveau, like the art of William Morris and this English Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s, was essentially a connoisseur’s art.  The materials were luxurious and beyond mass production.  And yet Art Nouveau left behind some sublime examples, thanks to open pocketbooks of open-minded clients.  The Palais Stoclet in Brussels is a late example, 1906 – 11, by Josef Hoffmann, a huge private home, a true gesamtkunstwerk, a product of the labors and talents of the best artists Vienna had to offer: Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser who worked with their colleague, Hoffmann on his greatest work.  The total cost of the Palais has never been calculated.

The careful craft and exuberant art and the luxury materials deployed by Hoffmann were totally at odds with the theories of Loos.  Art Nouveau intended to marry art and craft and was philosophically opposed to manufacturing.  Eliminating ornament, the criminal, would allow mass production, and this dream became possible only after the Great War.  This is the direction that proved practical and which ultimately elevated the public “taste.”   Good design replaced ornamentation as the concern for artists.  Van de Velde can be seen as a harbinger for this position in his concern from structure, tending towards the abstract, rather than the romantically symbolical. The battle over ornamentation, which raged during the Art Nouveau years, 1895-1905, was waged in towns and cities all over Europe.

In Vienna, the artists preferred straight lines, circles and squares, mechanically drawn elements quite at odds with French art nouveau.  Viennese art nouveau was additive, rather than holistic in approach, when one is considering its design qualities.  This is an obvious result of creating a pattern out of many geometric elements (Gustav Klimt), rather than out of a curving line (Beardsley).  Victor Horta’s Tassel House (Hôtel Tassel) in Brussels is quite a contrast to the Steiner House by Loos.  Predictably, the Loos house is completely without ornamentation or decoration in the back. The façade of the private home had to conform to Viennese architectural codes.  Despite the prediction of the late modern clean lines seen in the Steiner House, most of the architecture done by the Viennese artists was a sometimes uneasy alliance of elaborate decoration and sharp edges, seen in Joseph Hoffmann’s work, Palais Stoclet, in Brussels, and Otto Wagner’s postal savings bank in Vienna.

The End of Art Nouveau


Art Nouveau was not for the masses and remained a luxury art with a limited customer base. The characteristic curvilinear style can be found in the posters of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, the only items that could be mass-produced and widely distributed. But like many art style of the avant-garde, Art Nouveau ended after only ten years.  Perhaps it was the death of Bing or the birth of Cubism, or the outbreak of the Great War.  Ironically, the “new art” was not the future.  The future of design actually could be found far outside of Paris, in Vienna, birthplace of modern design.   Adolph Loos was actually a very radical architect and designer.  So accustomed have we become to the clean modern aesthetic that we find it difficult to realize to what extent people of this period were accustomed to architectural decoration.  When we look at the “Chicago style” of commercial architecture in America, we see what are to us rather sculptural and decorative buildings.  But to the public, they were unadorned.  This was often a client requirement.  Ornamentation was expensive; it got dirty and was hard to clean, especially when one is building a skyscraper. The invention of these tall buildings was made possible by the invention of a safe way to elevate people to great heights–the elevator.  With a new kind of building, come new kinds of questions. The question became the relation of form to function, and the debate would be played out in architecture before it could be considered in functional objects.

Art Nouveau had one attitude about form and function.  The form of the object should be express its function and this function should be expressed through decorative forms.  Ornament was in the service of expressing form and function.  Ornament both clothed and expressed the underlying structure.  Ornament decorated the structure.  Ornament disguised the structure.  But form and function came to take on different meanings.  Louis Sullivan’s statement “form follows function” came to be an architectural dictate, which contained a philosophical issue concerned with the role of structure in determining architectural form.  The buildings of Sullivan were encrusted with ornamentation, one of the last expressions of the importance of decoration in architecture.  His student, Frank Lloyd Wright, would banish the curve and favor the straight line.  He produced, not decoration or ornamentation, but interior design.  Through a repetition of the post and lintel as construction methods, the straight lines in Wright’s work led the way to the future.  Sullivan and Wright were the transition architects out of Art Nouveau and into Modernism.  Under the impact of rectilinear Cubism, the curvilinear signs of Hector Guimard began to look old fashioned the Métro signs were removed.  Only a few remain today and, like the Eiffel Tower, these Art Nouveau entrances to the stations have become nostalgic symbols of Paris.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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